You've made the momentous decision to go ahead with spine surgery to fix your chronic back problems. But your efforts toward pain-free living only renew after the procedure ends. Indeed, back surgery patients can do much to maximize their recovery and return to their favorite activities, according to Kaixuan Liu, MD, Ph.D., founder, and president of Atlantic Spine Center. Dr. Liu says that patients must understand what they should and shouldn't do after spine surgery to make their recoveries safer and even more pleasant.
"Patients who've decided to have spine surgery need to prepare for their post-surgical recovery, which will not only lessen pain just after the procedure but improve their overall recovery," explains Dr. Liu. "The treating physician and nursing staff typically provide written discharge instructions and prescriptions for pain medicine and physical therapy. However, patients and their families should be aware of several things that can smooth the transition from hospital to home and then back to regular life."
Spine surgery recovery
You and the family member or friend assisting you during this time need to understand the post-op instructions given to the patient. During the next several days, be aware of the signs of infection. These signs can include fever, increased redness, swelling, or drainage at the incision. Keep your wound clean and dry. Take your medications as directed, follow your post-operative instructions carefully, and keep your follow-up appointment with your doctor. If prescribed pain medications, you should take them as directed and with food, as they may upset an empty stomach. During your recovery, call your doctor ASAP if you have any symptoms that indicate you are not recovering as expected.
- Physical therapy: If your doctor recommends it, it's crucial to prioritize this form of rehabilitation. "You'll need to learn how to move and do activities in a way that prevents pain and keeps your back in a safe position," Dr. Liu says. "Physical therapy also teaches patients how to get out of bed or up from a chair safely; how to dress and undress; and how to keep your back safe when doing other activities, which eventually will include lifting and carrying items."
- Wearing a brace: "If your doctor prescribes a back brace, wearing it will help stabilize your back while it heals," Dr. Liu notes. "Wear it when sitting or walking, and only take it off during pre-approved periods."
- Sleep: Sleeping in any position that doesn't cause back pain: "Continuous, uninterrupted sleep is important for healing faster," he says. "Some back surgery patients prefer to sleep on their side with a pillow between their knees or behind them to support their back." Moving regularly: Regular, gentle movement helps keep blood circulating, speeding healing, Dr. Liu says.
Most importantly, Dr. Liu's "dos" include calling your physician whenever in doubt about your surgical recovery or if you begin to backslide.
The "don'ts after spine surgery can be just as important as the dos," according to Dr. Liu. In the days just after surgery, he advises patients to avoid the following:
- Impatience: Recovering from spine surgery can take between a few weeks and a few months, depending on the exact procedure. "Most of all, don't rush activities in the hopes of speeding up this process since that can backfire," Dr. Liu says. "Give yourself the time your body needs to heal completely."
- Climbing stairs: Going up or down stairs once or twice a day is fine for the first couple of weeks, but try not to overdo it. Bending at the waist: Instead, bend at the knees and squat to pick up objects.
- Lifting heavy weights: "Nothing over 10 pounds or more than a gallon of milk," he cautions. "This means no laundry baskets, grocery bags, or small children. If you've had a spinal fusion, avoid lifting items above your head until your doctor approves."
- Driving: Taking the wheel is off-limits for at least two weeks after surgery, Dr. Liu says, and try to limit time in the car as a passenger to short distances.
- Smoking: He says that smoking cigarettes or using other tobacco products hinders healing.
- Exercising: "Beyond simple walking, don't start swimming, golfing, running, or other strenuous activities without first getting your doctor's OK," Dr. Liu says.
Let your doctor know right away: "If you run a fever, lose feeling in your arms or legs, have difficulty urinating or controlling bowel movements, or if your back pain begins to worsen and doesn't get better with rest and pain medications, don't hesitate to be in touch with your doctor," he says. "We only want the fastest, most optimal recovery for our spine surgery patients, and being in touch is crucial."